Conditionally Paris

Thad McIlroy

In the opening sentence of Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne (Yale University Press) the narrator is crossing the Place des Pyramides in Paris on the way to the Place de la Concorde. In the last paragraph: a lift is climbing slowly to a terrace, where the narrator has been promised “a view overlooking the whole of Paris.” There are many things to recommend Paris Nocturne. A taciturn, unnamed narrator outlines a mystery that unfolds on a winter’s night. There’s a car accident, the driver, wearing a smile and a fur coat, now missing. Somewhere in the background is his nameless, faceless father, a crook, “whose only education was the street.” But what struck me more in this slim volume was the most important player in the story: Paris itself. The locations are all named: the police van driving along Quai des Tuileries, the hotels, bars, restaurants and cafés identified by name and location (Les Calcanques: it’s at 4 rue de la Coutellerie). The number 21 bus is boarded at Porte de Gentilly. We often say that place is as much a character as any of the people in a story. But Paris is not a character in Paris Nocturne; it’s a condition. It’s an obstacle and an enabler. It’s the narrator’s alter ego. It asks questions and then refuses answers. I couldn’t help wondering: is there another city in the world where a writer could intricately weave the geography into every page and expect the reader to not only endure this, but be pulled willingly into the mist? I’ve visited Paris, yes, more than once, but I know few of these places. I was not on familiar ground in Paris Nocturne. But by the end I could accept the enigma posed by deserted places so carefully described. I was anxious to embrace the view overlooking the whole of Paris.

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Thad McIlroy

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and consultant, and author of more than two hundred articles and several books on the subject. He lives in Vancouver and at


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